The Humor Corner:
Literary Humor Forms
Word Play: The juxtaposition of clashing or different words or concepts for humorous effect. Word Play is most easily exemplified in the pun but extends far beyond to logic twists, dialect games, and verbal tours de force.
One of the most prevalent forms of Humor of the Mind, Word Play pops up on the playground in the knock-knock joke and hangs on even in the nursing home; where memory of events grows dim, memory of language may live on. It sometimes occurs accidentally in newspaper headlines, such as Defendant’s Speech Ends in Long Sentence.
Or another example: from Richard Lederer’s Anguished English:
“Queen Elizabeth was the ‘Virgin Queen….’ When Elizabeth exposed herself before her troops, they all shouted “hurrah.” Then her navy went out and defeated the Spanish Armadillo.”
(Examples from Don Nielson, HUMOR ACROSS THE DISCIPLINES PowerPoints: # 1: "Accidental Humor.")
In literature, particularly in drama, we see Word Play adding spice to dialogue, keeping the audience on their toes. It often acts as an intensifier to other humorous effects.
Shakespeare is known for Word Play humor in virtually all of his comedies and many of his tragedies. Notably in As You Like It, Rosalind and Celia engage extensively in “flyghting,” a form of social quibbling popular in the court of Queen Elizabeth at the time. (See notably III, ii.) (For a fuller discussion, see “As You Like It As Enhanced by Humor.”)
Perhaps more comprehensible to the modern mind are the wit fests of Prince Hal and John Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I, with their puns, tropes, word games, and argumentative play. Typical is Falstaff’s line, “... were it not here apparent that thou art heir apparent . . .” (I.ii.57-58) and the prince’s skewering Falstaff with vile names: “…you starveling, you [eel-]skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish!” (II.iv.244-245). (For a fuller discussion, see Henry IV, Part I: Falstaff.)
Word Play has maintained its attraction over the centuries. In twentieth century film, Word Play is critical to the mesmerizing sales techniques of The Music Man, as in “T and that rhymes with P and that stands for ‘pool!’” But even before he starts his pitch, Professor Hill enters River City, Iowa engaged in a series of one-line repartees.
“That’s a fine animal you have there.” “For a horse.”
“Where’s the center of town? “Down the center of the street.”
“Where can I find a fine hotel?” “Try the Palmer House in Chicago.”
Like a great deal of Word Play, the repartee of the opening scenes gets funnier and funnier. (See "The Music Man: Think “The Minuet in G”.)
In Father of the Bride II, Martin Short as Franck the wedding coordinator nearly upstages Steve Martin with his audacious usage, shifts in level, and bizarre mispronunciations:
Franck Eggelhoffer: Uh-oh, I bring the wrong color thread. I assumed you'd be wearing a black "tuxado."
George: It is a black "tuxado."
Franck Eggelhoffer: I don't think so, babe. This tux is "nuffy" blue. No doubt about it.
George: What're you talking about? Armani doesn't make a blue tuxedo.
Franck Eggelhoffer: Armani don't also make "polyaster."
Robin Williams was a master of dazzling Word Play, as exhibited in Disney’s Aladdin. Williams’ voice as Genie creates a fireworks of verbal gymnastics and Word Play, as, for example,
Genie: [as a group of cheerleaders] Rick 'em, rack 'em, rock 'em, rake! Stick that sword into that snake!
Jafar: [as a snake] You stay out of thisss!
Genie: [weakly] Jafar, Jafar, he's our man. If he can't do it, GREAT!
Genie’s performance exemplifies the textural effect of concentrated Word Play in a film or stage play: razzle dazzle, mesmerizing, pacing, spectacular. (See "Aladdin: Do You Trust Me?")
Humor in literature is not stand-alone. Rather it must serve the whole work, while frequently intensifying other features of the whole. At the same time, it may be richer and deeper because it is part of a larger context.